What is your favorite genre of video game? Most of us can probably say we have one that stands above the rest as being our specialty, the one at which we have the most skill and for which we have the most passion. For me the genre that gels the most with the way I play games is the turn-based tactical strategy game, a genre in which I’ve played a number of titles over my many years of gaming. While I’ve played video games since I was a kid, the whole “hand-eye coordination” aspect of the hobby never quite sunk in for me. Physically speaking, I’m not a fast or precise person – you could try to be kind and call me meticulous but the adjectives slow and clumsy are likely more accurate. Games that allow me to take my time and apply my intellect to a puzzle while also appealing to my love of storytelling and character optimization are perfect for the slower pace at which I experience the world.
I first experienced the strategy RPG with Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, an entry in a long-beloved franchise that I purchased on a whim as a kid and immediately fell in love with. The similarities to chess – a board game that I loved to play with my grandfathers – instantly charmed me, and as I explored deeper I found even more things to love. Picking the best combinations of classes for each character kept me playing over and over again. Next came the Fire Emblem series, which taught me to value my characters even further due to the permanence of death, and the support conversations showed me that these sorts of games were opportunities to show off complex characters with deep personal relationships. Most recently, Into the Breach showed me how compelling a strategy game can be when it forces you to make hard choices between multiple consequences, and how removing the elements of randomness from the game actually increases the level of strategic play needed in order to excel.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Wargroove has been on my radar since it was first announced, albeit in a more casual way than my enthusiasm for, say, the next Fire Emblem. Part of my hesitance was the comparison to Advanced Wars (a strategy series quite different from the other games I’ve played) and part of it was due to its creation by Chucklefish, an indie studio that failed to impress me with their breakout game Stardew Valley. Still, I kept my eye on the game as it appeared in Nintendo Directs and Indie Hightlights presentations, and when the opportunity came to pick it up for myself I decided to seize it. Yet my extensive experience with the strategy genre actually put me in a situation where I found it difficult to appreciate the game for what it is during my first few battles. In this article, I want to unpack the biases I’ve formed playing other strategy titles to see if I can come to a more objective understanding of my first impressions of Wargroove.
From the moment of its reveal, Wargroove has been compared to Advanced Wars, a strategy series by Intelligent Systems (the creators of Fire Emblem) set in the modern era of tanks and firearms. What makes these games immediately stand out from other entries in the genre is that a single “unit” on the battlefield doesn’t just represent one person. Rather than having every playable unit be a unique character with meaningful story significance or personality, units are squads of faceless soldiers whose falling in battle is expected rather than mourned. More like chess, your units are pawns who have different advantages over other pieces on the board based on their type. In Wargroove, each squad is made up of four soldiers, and every 25% damage that the squad takes removes one of those soldiers from the equation.
This squad-based warfare has a few different effects on the gameplay. The first is that as a squad takes damage, the amount of damage it can dish out is reduced. Every time your team of four loses one of the soldiers in the squad, their ability to damage other squads is decreased, making them less effective the more damage they take. Having squads rather than unique units also means that developing character skills over time is a non-factor here. Unlike in Mario + Rabbids where each fighter has a different movement style and skillset that expands as you gain skill points, in Wargroove an individual squad will never be more powerful than it is when you first get it at 100% health. There’s no leveling up, no new skills or abilities – instead, you expand your capabilities by adding new squad types to your deployed forces.
Of course, unique characters are not completely absent from Wargroove. Armies have commanders who serve as the protagonists and antagonists of the story, and it from these individuals we get the storytelling and unique dialogue that we might see in strategy games with heavier RPG elements like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy. Commanders still don’t level up or gain new abilities, but they are quite powerful on their own and each one has a unique Groove ability that allows them to affect the battle in powerful ways. For example, the main character Mercia can heal herself and adjacent allies for 50% of their maximum health, restoring weakened squads to full strength while also keeping herself in the fight. The evil necromancer Valder can use his groove to summon footsoldiers onto the battlefield right next to him, allowing him to spawn units away from established barracks without having to pay any financial cost for the effort. These grooves affect your strategy with your commander and influence how you command the soldiers in your army – they are the most meaningful distinctions in playstyle between two different groups.
The first areas where I found myself struggling to accept Wargroove are actually ones unconnected to the gameplay itself: the graphics and the storytelling. The graphics are a small consideration, more of a gripe than a legitimate complaint. It’s a gripe that is consistent with the other Chucklefish game I’ve experienced, Stardew Valley. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the spritework – the little characters are cute enough and they have a distinct style to them. The character art, though, leaves something to be desired. The style conveyed by the sprites and by the anime opening don’t quite match up with the portraits of the characters, and this makes it somewhat difficult to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your forces. When you hover over a character and press the B button, you can see the units they are effective against and the ones they are vulnerable to. The names of the unit types are not displayed, and there is no tool to hover over the different portraits and see what they are referring to. Due to their small size and clunky design, it can be difficult to identify the kinds of units you need to watch out for. In my view, it’s a classic case of good concept, poor execution – I’d love to see Chucklefish have character art and portraits that are more consistent with the vision portrayed in the anime and sprites.
I haven’t experienced much of the game’s story in four chapters, but my first impressions of it are rather weak. What I’ve seen so far is bog-standard: the king of a peaceful nation is assassinated by an evil necromancer, forcing the young princess and her wise teacher to retreat to the safety of a neighboring kingdom and raise up an army strong enough to defeat the villain along with his Evil Artifact™. This is basically every Fire Emblem plot too, but the difference is that those games are made more compelling by the relationships between the characters, which have unique dynamics even when the story follows familiar beats. The only tools we have to learn more about the characters in Wargroove are their biography pages, a much less interesting method of conveying information than dialogue between two individuals. The dialogue that is present is quite weak – one of the first antagonists you truly tangle with, Ragna, just kind of growls and yelps a lot.
These aspects of the game are not game breaking, but taken together right at the beginning they immediately gave me a first impression that Wargroove would be an inferior tactical RPG. Even before I really got to dig into the mechanisms I felt that I wouldn’t enjoy the game and even regretted not looking at some reviews first. Plain and simple, this was bias coming into play – the game didn’t look as pretty as Mario + Rabbids or Final Fantasy Tactics and didn’t have some of the features I like from the Fire Emblem series, so obviously it’s gonna be bad, right? I had to remind myself at this point that Wargroove needed to be treated as its own unique game before I could appreciate it for what it is. While comparison can be a useful tool after completing a game to help put it in context and help consumers to make decisions about what to play, when you first begin a game it’s better to set those concerns to the side.
Wargroove is a game doomed from the start to be compared to other titles, whether it’s the thematically-similar Fire Emblem, the mechanically-similar Advanced Wars, or even the similarly indie-published Into the Breach (made all the easier by the fact that I’m still playing that game too). When I found these seemingly-unfavorable comparisons hampering with my experience with the game, I decided to take a moment to stop thinking of Wargroove in context and instead just to appreciate the game for what it is. And when I stopped caring about the weak graphics, the familiar story, and the bland characterization that we see in the opening chapters, I started to form a first impression that was much more positive.
For one, every map I’ve played in Wargroove so far had a different objective. Whether it has been to route the enemy, capture a specific building, defeat a particular commander, or escape the battlefield, having unique objectives on each map keeps the battles feeling fresh and requires you to change your approach each mission. There are five main unit types that you work with in the beginning: swordsmen, pikemen, rangers, knights, and wagons, in addition to innocent civilians and your commander Mercia. All of the unit types have different movement capabilities and attack patterns, and are more effective in particular situations. This is due partly to the way in which critical hits work in Wargroove – instead of relying on a random chance like most RPGs, you get a guaranteed critical when you attack with a unit in a certain way. Rangers crit when they don’t move on their turn, while swordsmen crit when they are adjacent to their commander. This puts control of critical damage in the player’s hands, motivates you to think harder about unit positioning, and makes the different types of units you control feel more unique from one another.
Fortifications are an important part of Wargroove’s gameplay. Controlling a village means having a constant flow of gold coming to your war chest, funding new units for your army. A damaged unit standing next to a village can call in reinforcements, restoring health 1-for-1 by “damaging” the village and paying a little gold. Special locations called barracks allow you to spawn new units, and you can hire soldiers once per turn by paying their gold cost. Wagons help you ferry units from your protected barracks to the front lines of the battle, and also to rescue civilians from dangerous situations while your soldiers fight the enemy forces. Because buildings are such significant parts of your strategy, providing both finances and manpower, protecting them is paramount. Swordsmen and knights are great for this, the latter using their mounts to quickly reach villages and drive out the enemy while the former can then move in and set up shop.
When you set aside the less significant aspects of Wargroove and focus on the gameplay, it’s much easier to see what’s special about this game. It appeals to those who want to manage more than just units on a battlefield, who want to think about resources such as locations and finances. Should I sacrifice my squad of knights to whittle down an enemy or have them retreat to a village to be reinforced? Do I keep my commander right in the action or position her to provide healing and give critical hit potential to other units? If I claim this building, will my opponent simply be able to overwhelm my forces and take it right back on their turn? Figuring out where to put your forces so that they hit the enemy as hard as possible while taking minimal damage is key, as is determining when it’s better to buy multiple cheap squads rather than a single more expensive unit type.
My first impressions of Wargroove were not positive at first, and I don’t think my complaints are necessarily unfair. The game doesn’t look great all the time, the story is derivative, and there’s not much in the way of characterization to keep you going. If those things are why you play games, Wargroove will likely not impress you. But if you, like me, care the most about how a game feels when you play it, then there’s treasure to be found underneath the veneer of dust. Squint at the clunky character portraits, roll your eyes at the ninth time someone dismisses Ragna because all she does is shout about how she wants to break stuff, and then feel excitement kick in as you start the next battle and see what kind of tricky situations you’ll have to figure out next. Focus on the satisfaction of figuring out the perfect attack pattern so that each of your pikemen get the critical hit bonus and your enemies fall before you. Those moments are the ones where Wargroove truly sings.
If you’ve been playing Wargroove too, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the opening act. Do you find that you agree with many of my assessments? Did you enjoy the graphics or the story in a way I didn’t? Did the gameplay impress you less? I’d love to hear your first impressions of the game, and whether or not those impressions turned out to be accurate as you played further in. My advice to those who want to try out the game for the first time would be this – let go of the comparisons to Advanced Wars or Fire Emblem. Don’t think about the other tactical games you might have played. Let the game be what it is, and then when the dust settles and you’ve dissected your thoughts, you can decide how it stacks up to the others. Because I think if you give Wargroove a fighting chance, you too will be impressed by what it has to offer.